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Former Steelers safety Jordan Dangerfield maintains faith in ability with a heart of steel

In an exclusive interview, the seven-year core special teamer discusses Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger, the growth of several young Steelers defenders, the Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown sagas and much more.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

After starting his career as an undrafted free agent and signing with the Buffalo Bills, Jordan Dangerfield was cut by the organization in August 2013, months after he inked his rookie deal. The Towson alum wasn’t offered another chance until the Pittsburgh Steelers signed him to a reserve/future contract on Jan. 10, 2014 — a situation that Dangerfield seized.

During his time in Pittsburgh, Dangerfield molded a role for himself as not only a backup safety, but also as an invaluable special teams asset. In 2016 and from 2018-20, Dangerfield played over 50% of the Steelers’ special teams snaps; moreover, though Dangerfield earned only three starting nods, he saw action in 61 of a possible 64 matchups during those four campaigns.

Dangerfield agreed to terms on a one-year, $825,000 deal with Pittsburgh in March 2020, but the Steelers elected not to retain the special teams ace through 2021. Since departing the Steel City, the 31-year-old has had two tryouts with the San Francisco 49ers — the most recent one occurring on Dec. 28 — as well as one with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Dec. 7. Dangerfield said he was atop both squads’ signing lists, but unlucky circumstances — COVID-19 testing hiccups and injuries to active players — have served as barriers to another deal.

Last week, I got the chance to catch up with Dangerfield, a player whose mark on the Steelers was palpable despite a more conservative role. Dangerfield’s next call could come imminently, but he won’t forget his time occupying Heinz Field or his many talented teammates any time soon.

Question: In a May podcast appearance, you said you were “dumbfounded” by not being re-signed by the Steelers. Nearly seven months later, have you gained any clarity?

[I’m] still so confused. My exit meetings, they went great. I pretty much had one of my best years of my career, honestly. From Coach T (Tomlin) to [Kevin] Colbert to Danny Smith to position coaches, I had not one clue that I wouldn’t be a Steeler this year at all. Everything went [well]; everybody said they wanted me back. It just didn’t work out, I guess, around the contract negotiation process. I was just trying to get my work. It was my first time actually being a free agent in my career to where I can test the market where I can ask for what I want to ask for. So, I was new to the process and kind of went into it aggressively because of my history there and the film I put out there and the way they trusted me. I just felt like that was my opportunity to take it, and I had to just bet on myself. I did that, and it just didn’t work out.

Q: Are you still in contact with any Steelers players or coaches?

Nah, not really. Everybody that I was close with, they’re not there anymore. I’ve talked to some guys on social media. It’s cool when you’re in the locker room and everybody’s posting together, acting like everybody’s all good and everything. But at the end of the day, it’s an individual thing. Everybody [ends] up going their separate ways. You get your clique; you’re close with your clique. When you’re with your team, it’s a team thing. But business-wise, it’s just how it is. That’s how cutthroat it is.

Q: Have you been following or watching the Steelers this season?

I mean, it’s stressful to watch it. My son is 5; he loves football. It’s crazy how he’ll sit down and watch the whole game. I’ve been out here (in Pittsburgh) for seven years; he’s 5, so he’s been out here with me pretty much my whole career. I think he’s a younger Steelers fan, so he likes watching the games, so I got to put it on.

I’ve watched some of the games, not all the games; [I’m] trying to watch football, but not as much football as I used to watch. Being on the ins and outs, learning the business part of it — I love the game, but it definitely changes my perspective of the game, especially with my journey and how I know it’s all about politics. If they invest in somebody, it doesn’t matter if they’re playing [well] or not; if they invest in somebody, they’re gonna play him. So, it doesn’t matter if I’m having a great year or playing [well] — at the end of the day, they’re gonna play who they’re paying.

Just learning the stuff like that behind how the business works, behind closed doors, it’s a lot different for me now. But like I said, my son loves it. I still love it. I try to watch it, but it’s hard to watch to be like, ‘I could be playing right now, and I don’t know why I’m not playing,’ and the situation I’m in. So it is stressful and a little difficult, but I love the game and it definitely shaped me to who I am today. It’s done a lot for me and my family. I would just say [you’ve] got to just trust the process. I love the game, so hopefully it works out.

Q: Countless Steelers fans are coming for Mike Tomlin’s head. What would your response be to those people, especially that don’t think he’s a good coach?

I mean, I think Coach T is the guy for the job, honestly. You could be down and out, but he’s gonna you have ready to play and ready to fight. He’s gonna have his team ready to go. I feel like this season, that’s what their record and the film they’ve been putting out there — is what it is right now. There’s games that should have been lost, honestly, if you look at it, but they found a way to win. I feel like that’s how it’s always gonna be with Coach T. No matter what the situation is, he’s gonna have his guys ready to go out there and play.

Q: This Sunday could be Ben Roethlisberger's last ever NFL game. What does No. 7 mean to you?

I feel like he’s the guy that comes in — I feel like he does what he has to do on the field, off the field real quick, and then he’s out. I’ve had small talk with him, conversation, especially about our families and stuff like that. But as far as leaving, I just know know he’s gonna do it on his own when it’s time; like he said, he doesn’t know when it’s gonna be. It could be; he doesn’t know. I just respect him as a human with his decision and his family’s decision.

NFL: DEC 21 Steelers at Bengals
Dangerfield played alongside T.J. Watt for four seasons. During that span, Watt amassed 49.5 sacks, three Pro Bowl appearances and two First-Team All-Pro selections.
Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Q: What was it like working with T.J. Watt on Keith Butler’s defense? How have you monitored his progression and how he’s grown since he joined the team in 2017?

I’m not surprised with anything he’s doing right now. From Day One, I knew he was a freak of nature. Even when he signed his deal, I hit him up and I was like, ‘Man, it’s not surprising to me.’ He deserves everything that he got for sure. I’ve seen it from the day they drafted him, the work he put in on the field and off the field. I see the drive and hunger he has, and I’m not surprised at all. I knew it was gonna happen and it was just a matter of time.

Q: Another guy that you played with was Minkah Fitzpatrick, whom the Steelers acquired during the 2019 season. How early did Fitzpatrick impress you in a similar regard? How do you think he’s continued to grow as the Steelers have added more to his plate?

He was a guy, too, from the first day he came after the trade, came in right before the game. Once he came in, I knew what kind of player he was. I was older, obviously a backup, but the transition he had, I was there to help him. I was teaching him the defense as fast as I can and as easy as I can at the time, too. I feel like he picked up on the defense fast, obviously. It fit him, and he felt comfortable, especially with the organization and everything. I think that shows.

Q: What have you seen from Terrell Edmunds this year, and how have you watched him improve during his four years in Pittsburgh?

This year, I haven’t been following that much or watching his play, not being in the building every day. But I know he was developing when I was there. He got better every year I was there. Each year, I saw growth in Terrell, so I’m sure this year he kind of put it all together. I feel like under the (contractual) circumstances, I’m sure he’s trying to go all out there and put some good stuff on film.

Q: When you tried out in Tampa Bay, you could’ve been reunited with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. How much of their sagas was revealed to the media? How much did the players get a sense of what was happening?

It was shocking for everybody, I think, honestly. It was a crazy break up. But I mean as far as being around that that offense, there was nothing like it. It was crazy to see them go work every day and how hard all of them worked, between Le’Veon and AB (Antonio Brown). Being guys they are, some guys don’t have that work ethic, but they both have work ethic and they showed it every day in practice. AB could get a catch, a screen, but he’s taking it, finishing all the way to the end zone. Le’Veon [gets] a handoff, but he’s gonna run all the way to the end zone each rep. That’s what kind of work ethic they had every day for practice. Doing what they did on game day and seeing that in person, it wasn’t surprising either since I saw the work they put in at practice.

Media-wise, I think it was blown out of proportion. Le’Veon and AB, they both left on different terms, actually: Le’Veon was more business-wise. You can’t really knock a guy for trying to get what he’s worth and get what he wants. As far as AB, him and Ben, I feel like the media blew it out of proportion, but that’s between them. I didn’t honestly know much about it. It all happened so fast. Just like everybody saw from the outside, inside, we were looking at the inside, and really, it was much more detailed inside.

New York Jets v Pittsburgh Steelers
Against the Jets in Week 5 of 2016, Dangerfield made his second consecutive start for the Steelers. The safety played 78% of defensive snaps and 71% of defensive snaps for Pittsburgh en route to a 31-13 win.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Q: How do you stay motivated, especially by building off your experience as a UDFA?

I’ve been plugging away since college, honestly. I was at Hofstra at first, and after my freshman year, they dropped the football program. At 18 years old, I get hit in the face with my first taste of adversity, to where I don’t have any football. So, I feel like it’s started since then, and then I had my career at Towson. And then going for my rookie year undrafted to Buffalo, getting cut that year, and setting out that whole year — my rookie year — and catching on with Pittsburgh 2014 and being up and down with them. It’s just been a roller coaster for me. It’s been a journey; I’ve been thankful for it. I’ve been thankful for all of my opportunities. I just love the game that much. It’s stressful, but at the end of the day, it’s rewarding.

Q: Do you classify yourself as a “special teams ace?”

I definitely look as myself as a special teams ace, because a special teams ace is a four-phase guy: kickoff, kick return, punt, punt return, and a guy that matches the technique. I was a special teams ace because I was on all four phases. I averaged over 300, 250 special teams snaps a year, and I was productive and always available. So I definitely look at myself as a special teams ace. It was consecutive and it was production every year, so I put it out there. I cherish it; I like special teams. I just feel like there was always a way to change the game on special teams. I love the pressure that comes with because you kind of get one play — it’s like a one-and-done type thing, and [you’ve] got to do your job. Every play, [you’ve] got to do your job to the best of your ability because if you mess up, it might change the game. But if you do something good, it’s gonna change the game in a good way. I like that pressure to where it was like a one-play thing: you get one shot and you got to deliver right on this play. I like that pressure that comes with.

But, I’m also a safety now. I know I can play safety; I just wish I actually got a little more opportunity on defense just to put [film] out there. Even a few plays a game, I wish I would’ve gotten more of an opportunity to show my defense during the regular season, but I feel like teams are gonna have to play defense – especially Pittsburgh. They know that.

Q: How do you think you were able to endear yourself to Steelers Nation given that special teams players can get lost in all of the star names?

Just from my journey. It’s not a secret — especially if you’re a real Steeler fan, you’re gonna know. They know me from 2014. That was my first camp, and I felt like each year I had a good camp, and each camp I got better. I feel like I never had a bad training camp. So every time they got to see me in person, especially out there in Latrobe, which is exciting; they like going out there for game day every day. Every opportunity I got, I [had] to make the most of it because my snaps were limited. On defense, when I got there, I had to make a play. I just felt like I showed a lot with a little bit of defensive plays I got. Definitely on special teams, I got to show what I can do.

[You’ve] got to love a good story. I worked for everything that I got; it wasn’t handed to me. I took the long way. It wasn’t easy at all. And I just think that the fire of Steelers Nation, [they’ve] got a lot of respect for the players and the stuff they put out there and the things that goes with.